Last December, a University of Montana art class arranged to temporarily exhibit a group project in the atrium of the Payne Family Native American Center. Students erected a scale model of Rome, complete with hills, roads and waterways. The display was made of Styrofoam. Each of the art students crafted a replica of one of the city's famed monuments. There were Roman bath houses, aqueducts, the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus.
Within a day, Rome was conquered. An anonymous group of students—supposedly annoyed by the subtle message the display's presence in the Native American Center sent—dotted the tiny city with paper teepees. They set up plastic cowboy and Indian figures. They labeled famous landmarks as "Indian owned tourist destinations" and made sweeping references to the history of European conquest in North America. There were signs declaring "Trail of Tears Golf Course" and "Roman Land For Sale." What began as a simple art exhibit became a statement on the colonization of a people.
That incident was viewed as little more than a thought-provoking cultural mash-up. When a bumper sticker was discovered on a recycling bin in the building this September that read "Save the White Race! Earth's Most Endangered Species," it was more alarming. The sticker included the address of a white supremacist website, one belonging to a group called Montana Creators.
Its discovery sent waves of outrage through the Native community at UM. It was also perplexing: Was it outright racism? A gesture of hate? Who was the intended target? Many observers were clear, at least, that it was a despicable and troubling act.
When the Native American Center first opened, in April 2010, someone threw a rock at the building, breaking a window. In response, then-President George Dennison penned a letter to the campus and the community saying he found such behavior baffling.
"As I recall, the campus experienced something similar with regard to a temporary structure—a sukkah holding great religious significance—erected on the campus by members of the Jewish community," Dennison said at the time. The sukkah had been so badly damaged in 2008 that it had to be taken down in the midst of the Sukkot holiday. Student volunteers opted to sleep in the sukkah the following year to discourage such actions.
Several weeks after the supremacist bumper sticker turned up, a Native American student at UM reported seeing "prairie nigger" scrawled on a dry-erase board in one of the campus dorms. This time the outrage was more muted. Most people in the campus community did not seem to be aware of it, but Native students were. Word travels fast within a campus minority, says Laura John, a former UM doctoral student in psychology and a member of the Blackfeet tribe. Members share thoughts, reactions and experiences. Incidents like the message on the dry-erase board can leave a lasting mark.
Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services at UM, has a theory about the latest racially charged flaps. The Native American population on campus used to reside in a tiny house tucked away on Arthur Avenue. Except for events like American Indian Heritage Day and the annual Kyi-Yo Pow Wow, they weren't a really visible minority on campus. Now, with the ornate Native American Center situated on the Oval, other institutions are looking to the university as an example. Folks from all over the globe are touring the building. UM's Native population can't be ignored any longer, Hunter says.
"Students are feeling a little more empowered to speak out," Hunter says. "It was students who really brought the awareness to the faculty and staff on campus about what was going on [with the bumper sticker]. A long time ago, there wasn't enough unity. There's more of a collective effort now to support one another."
Native students number just over 600 this academic year, making them the largest ethnic minority on the UM campus. Yet they represent little more than 1 percent of the student body. Coming to a mainstream institution so steeped in Western tradition and with such an overwhelmingly white population can be a shock for students who were reared in Native communities, says Ruth Short Bull, an enrolled member on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Short Bull is a single mother of two who is studying for her Ph.D. in the forestry department at UM. A fight for acceptance and understanding is the last thing she thought she'd face when she enrolled, she says. "My mother got her masters degree at least 20 years ago, and she didn't have to deal with any kinds of issues of prejudice or racism during her coursework. I knew going into a graduate program that the coursework would be difficult and that time management would be something I'd have to deal with...But I didn't foresee having to deal with any of this."
'We have always been home.'
The University Center was awash in multiethnic activity Oct. 27, which had been declared the Day of Dialogue. The center's atrium hummed with the sound of African drums as dancers in African regalia moved and chanted. Sessions on inter-generational relationships, "dumb jock" stereotypes and passing for black as a white artist in the hip-hop community filled the day.
One of the session rooms on the third floor began filling up quickly just before 1 p.m. Event staff scurried through the door, shuttling in additional chairs. Several of the panel's featured members showed up, but a Day of Dialogue coordinator quickly announced that the crowd was too big. The panel was moving to the UC Theater down the hall.
The panelists didn't appear to mind. They were here to discuss Indian identity; the bigger the audience, the better.
"Being American Indian isn't about how you look or dress," said Annie Belcourt, a professor of pharmacy practice at UM and one of the session's five Native panelists. "Sometimes it's how you act. But it's also not something you can choose to be on a given day."
Belcourt had cut straight to the question of what Indian identity isn't. What it is, she said, is a constellation of social, political and epistemological views.
That answer varied greatly among the panelists. For graduate student Kevin Kicking Woman, who grew up in foster homes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the image of identity was best conjured as a tree. "What does a tree need?" he asked. "Roots."
Julie Cajune, an educator on the Flathead Indian Reservation, observed that "American Indians get the unique experience of being asked to validate our ethnic identity, our 'Indian-ness,'" while her identity is derived from the historic belief that her people belong to the land; Cajune grew up in her mother's community, the Salish tribe, who refer to themselves as the "flesh of the land."
Belcourt is Blackfeet on her father's side, Mandan and Hidatsa on her mother's side, making her a blend of vastly different backgrounds. But there was a common theme to her personal definition of identity that was echoed by the rest of the panel. "We as Native people are home," she said. "We have always been home. This land is our home, and it's important to our sense of community."
For some Native students, it can be the distance or disconnection from their communities that stands in the way of higher education. Many grew up on reservations surrounded by extended families. UM presents a thoroughly modern, Western world by comparison—a place where they can easily feel lost. American Indians may be the largest ethnic minority on campus, but they're still a minority, and small in numbers.
There were 37 Native freshmen at UM at the beginning of the 1991 fall semester. In 2007, there were 45. Total freshman enrollment in that period went from 1,303 to 1,662.
Retention has been a problem for Native students. According to the latest figures from the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange, Native retention after one year at UM has dipped, with occasional rebounds, from 67 percent in 1991 to 50 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, retention after two years had increased from 35 percent in 1991 to nearly 43 percent in 2005—although one should note in both cases that the samples are small.
The challenge for Native students isn't just in making their way to UM, Short Bull says. It's also in finding enough support and community to stay there. "I know a lot of Blackfeet students that go home every weekend," she says. "That's four hours one way, and they do that every weekend. It has to be a pretty strong commitment to come here to begin with. But to make it through? It's a lot of sacrifice."
The new Native American Center has at least given Native students a place to gather. The former home of the Native American Studies Program, the tiny house on Arthur Avenue, was hardly noticeable and lacking meeting space. Laura John says that in the Arthur Avenue days, it seemed as though Native students were shadows who only emerged fully for the Pow Wow—or when someone broke teepee poles outside the building. Now Native students have a place where they can study together and share accomplishments or frustrations.
John says she was recently reminded of how the new center has remedied some of the rootlessness Native students once felt on campus. She was talking to people in her building about issues she'd faced in her department. Other students began to share stories, she says. "One student—I think a freshman student—was describing an experience of sitting on the Oval under a tree reading for class. Two female Caucasian students were walking by where she was sitting, and one says to the other, 'There are so many Native students here. It makes me want to transfer.'"
The new center is a refuge as well as a work of art and a new landmark. Provost Perry Brown says it represents the administration's dedication to accommodating Native students, and, he adds, it's the only one of its kind in the country.
Kathryn Shanley, a Native American Studies professor and Brown's assistant on issues of Native education, says UM is making headway. "The university's made great strides with the Native American Center and with, now, two full-time positions in American Indian student support. I've seen some fabulous strides made by the university in 12 years."
But the center has also seen a few cultural dust-ups, like the incident with the Rome display. And Native students are quick to pick up on subtle cues from non-Native classmates and faculty. Many have been exposed to what John calls a "colonized mentality" on reservations since they were young. They've seen family members try to resist an oppressive system and gain nothing. White-dominated mainstream institutions can perpetuate that colonization model by unintentionally forcing Native students to subscribe to a Western model of behavior. The students have a hard time voicing their concerns, John says, because "we're coming from communities where we've been taught it doesn't matter if you stand up...Or if it does, look at the Cobell case: fifteen years and still not resolved?"
John is referring to the suit brought by Eloise Cobell on behalf of many Native Americans, which was settled by the federal government in 2009. Plaintiffs still have not seen any money.
"What does that do to someone's psyche?" she asks.
'Not a whole lot of brown faces'
UM's Diversity Strategic Plan—an evolving document aimed at addressing the needs of underrepresented minorities—includes a lengthy list of short- and long-term goals. One of the most telling, and most critical, is diversifying UM's faculty and staff. "There's not a whole lot of brown faces as far as staff and faculty go," Short Bull says.
Native student enrollment may be up but the number of Native faculty available to those students remains low.
"If you don't come here with a support system already in place, if you don't come here being able to maintain relationships at home, that's pretty hard," Short Bull continues.
Native faculty and staff can be more than an administrative representation of a campus minority. They can be role models for Native students struggling to overcome cultural disconnection, Short Bull says—role models who come from similar backgrounds and can relate better to what those students face. As it is, with so few at UM and so many Native students, the Native faculty are swamped. New professors are needed to balance new student figures.
"If we're going to continue to diversify the student body, we're going to have to...provide more mentors," Brown says. "But it's going to take enhancing the faculty to really make that happen."
The pool of Native and Native Alaskan graduates with Ph.D.s is one of the smallest in the country. Nationwide, Native Americans are 0.9 percent of the population and 0.4 percent of college faculty.
Brown says UM has teamed up with institutions in the Pacific Northwest such as Washington State University, Oregon State University and Montana State University to recruit Native doctoral graduates. The universities intend to hire from one another's graduate pools. "That will help us diversify—in the Native American arena, anyway—significantly," Brown says.
UM says it also plans to hire a second staffer in its Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, who would work solely on recruitment and retention of minority faculty.
Such longer-range plans are easily overshadowed by some of the immediate concerns voiced by Native students. Short Bull recently spearheaded a petition, for example, aimed at getting a Native faculty member with a Ph.D. in science appointed to the search committee for a new director for the Native American Lab, which gives Native students space for scientific research.
A small group of students had already persuaded the administration to put a Native student from the Sloan Scholars program on the search committee. The petition included a list of professors from other institutions that the authors felt were qualified, since UM has only two Native Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) faculty. They submitted it to Brown's office in late September. Brown emailed a response shortly afterward with the name of a Native scientist who'd been appointed to the committee. It was not one of the names suggested by the petition's authors.
Brown says it was always UM's intention to include a Native STEM faculty member on the committee. "The petition reinforced something I'd already made a decision about," he says.
Short Bull and her fellow petitioners felt they didn't have a voice in the process, and that UM's response at times was at best half-hearted. "It just seems like we've gotten a lot of lip service, a lot of double talk," she says.
"We're here to get our educations, so at some point we have to focus on getting our coursework done," she continues. The three petition authors "are parents. Only one of us has a partner, so the other two of us are single parents—the primary writers of the petition. This has already eaten up a lot of our time and energy. They demonstrated their lack of concern about our issues [by] the way that they responded to us."
Such deeper, subtler misunderstandings appear to be where UM suffers most as it tries to bridge cultural gaps. Blatant racism is easier to address than varying perceptions of marginalization or cultural insensitivity.
Short Bull recalls being in a cultural resource management class not long ago. The professor was discussing Native origin stories and referred to "mythical people" in the creation beliefs that are the theological foundation of many Native peoples. The professor used words such as "myths" and "legends" for characters in those creation stories, she says, and that gave her pause.
"It seems Christianity is pretty well accepted, and the use of the word 'God' on our money and in other places is common. So it's kind of belittling to use that language about people or beings that [Natives] have, for generations, felt and believed are very much real and alive."
John says she's had similarly subtle brushes with the disparity between Western thinking and Native views. She once attended a board game night hosted by several classmates. When she arrived, she says, they were in the midst of playing "Settlers of Catan," a popular German game that John noticed was "about colonizing an island...Boy did that make me feel uncomfortable. So in my awkwardness, I made a joke out of it. Then I think it dawned on everyone there, and it changed the whole mood. [And I thought] 'Oh shit. Here I am, the representative person of color here. Let me rain on your parade.' It's a tough situation to be in. What's the alternative?...Act white. Don't bring up those things if they come up in a group, because...you're going to be, like, 'I'm not going to get invited anymore.'"
Krystal Two Bulls, a sixth-year senior in the social work program, believes the solution is simple: Faculty, staff, administrators and students need to be open-minded about the cultural differences of Native Americans. For example, the definition of family is much more inclusive in Indian Country. Adopted or extended family members are equally as important as immediate blood relatives. Two Bulls was born Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, but grew up in Lame Deer. She returned home recently for three family-related emergencies. One was a funeral for her grandfather—not a blood grandfather, but an adopted one whom she'd grown up with her whole life. She missed an economics exam, and her professor questioned the legitimacy of her absence. Such instances occasionally make her dread coming back to school after a trip home, she says.
"If faculty and staff and administrators could understand the cultural differences, take a step back and look at things from our point of view, it would make a big difference in a lot of situations, instead of trying to force us to conform or assimilate and have us lose ourselves," Two Bulls says, adding, "We're not asking for special treatment. We're just asking for the understanding."
'We're still here'
As its Native student population grows and UM struggles to diversify its faculty, there's pressure to make the transition smooth.
This fall marked the start of the first Living Learning Community for Native students. The program, in which Two Bulls is a volunteer, tries to provide fellowship and community for incoming freshmen. The 14 students in the program this year are housed together on campus. They can meet peers, Two Bulls says, network with mentors and discuss any problems they might have adjusting.
But as with the Native American Center, Two Bulls says, the program needs to prove successful to validate its existence. The students "have to do well, they have to get good grades and they have to do well next semester. If they don't, all eyes are on us."
There's responsibility on all sides, says John. The students need to stand up, voice concerns clearly and realize their worth to the university. UM needs to welcome and encourage such behavior. Most of all, she says, UM needs to at least be willing to admit that it might not be doing the best job possible at times. "There's this belief that we're color-blind," she says. "That exists out here in Missoula, too. People want to believe that it's so accepting of diversity. Maybe on a superficial level, but I think at a deeper, meaningful level, no, it's not.
"The university has a wonderful opportunity," John continues. "They have access to Native students—Native students are coming to them. They have the opportunity to be on the [cutting] edge in the area of creating an environment that welcomes, respects and values many cultures. But they really have to want to do that."
There's an impressive body of academic literature on integrating Native views in Western institutions. It's not just about responding to allegations of racism or learning to accept other cultural values.
Scholars such as Betty Bastien, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet who teaches at the University of Calgary, and Gregory Cajete, a Tewa Indian and Native American Studies chair at the University of New Mexico, have emphasized for years the importance of recognizing that Native students come from a culture where education is based on a connection to the land. Native views of life and learning are circular, with a major goal being the transmission of culture to new generations. Entering the linear model of education—in other words, the model of UM and every mainstream, white-dominated institution in America—can be a shock to young adults who grow up in reservation environments. Linear, accomplishment-based thinking challenges their cultural identity and prods them to "act white."
Short Bull understands that concept well, having worked to develop culture-based curricula for public schools on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Two Bulls gets it, too. Her parents have toured the country offering presentations on what they call the "Medicine Wheel Model" of teaching. The goal, Two Bulls says, is to introduce faculty and administrators at mainstream institutions to a Native worldview.
"Even your definition of being successful, that's a really big thing for me," she says. "My family really encourages me to do well and get good grades, but I'm at the point in my life where I'm grounded enough in my culture and grounded enough in myself where I know I don't need a degree to be successful, to say I'm educated. But I do know being at the university this long, there have been a lot of times I've felt like I have to have this degree in order to do anything in my life. It's created an imbalance in me where I've lost who I was."
The tribal college movement in the 1970s was built on the concept of integrating Native culture and education in the interest of preserving endangered aspects such as languages. Somehow, that didn't translate to mainstream colleges and universities, John says. Neither did the Civil Rights movement.
"It seems to me that the Civil Rights movement in the '60s and '70s made it to campuses for other oppressed groups—African Americans, Asian Americans, women," she says. "It didn't occur for the Native population. I think things died off after [Natives] took over Wounded Knee in South Dakota [in 1973]. It started to dissipate.
"Will it ever happen? I hope so."
Short Bull hopes it will, too, for her sake and for her two young sons. She says she's noticed a lot of Native students discussing the Occupy Wall Street movement on Facebook lately. Individuals who feel under-represented are finally beginning to act, she says.
Look at the Arab Spring in the Middle East, John says. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya—masses of revolutionaries have staged protests and demonstrations out of sheer frustration. John sees the desire for a voice bubbling to the surface there and wonders if it's time Native American students took a turn.
The Day of Dialogue panel largely avoided the topic of stereotypes. Comments regarding European conquest were presented with caution. Annie Belcourt briefly touched on the influence that centuries of us-versus-them and "kill the Indian" mentalities have had on Native senses of community and self. But Vernon Grant, a grad student in health and human performance and a member of the Blackfeet tribe, went straight for the jokes. He arrived late, having driven down from the Flathead Valley, and within minutes made a crack about running on "Indian time." Non-Natives in the audience chuckled uneasily.
Then he turned serious. "You see people who are badly defeated," he said. "I have a good friend who's Northern Cheyenne, and he told me about these guys who were researching a cure for alcoholism. They were fascinated by Indian people. They asked, 'How are you still here? How did you survive?'
"They asked elders, and the elders said, 'We pray for each other. We help each other.'"